United Nations pooled funds tackle strategic issues from an angle of adaptability

In this blog, Santiago Quiñones talks about his work with UN pooled funds in Colombia and Malawi and discusses how they aid peacebuilding and sustainable development.

Our senior advisor Riva Kantowitz recently spoke with Santiago Quiñones, Coordinator of the Malawi SDG Acceleration Fund.  Read their conversation below and learn more about the value of UN pooled funds and how they can get the UN system to work together.

Santiago, you have experience in working with UN funds. First in Colombia and now in Malawi. Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your current role?

Career-wise, I’m a UN junkie! I’ve worked most of my career, for 12 or 13 years within the UN system, with different agencies on different issues – with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), on human development, governance, local development and with the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) on issues of youth and agriculture. And now I’ve found an interesting area of work focused on financing for development through pooled funding. This journey started in Colombia, with the Colombia sustaining peace fund and continues with the Malawi SDG Acceleration Fund.

How is the UN pooled funding mechanism used to achieve the goal of localised funding at the country level? 

It must be acknowledged that pooled funding is not something new, it’s been there for a while – the genesis is with humanitarian funds, and these types of mechanisms have demonstrated over time their ability to adapt to different realities, circumstances and needs. One of the most interesting features is that they are very flexible – in terms of the thematic areas, you see pooled funds for Ebola, peacebuilding, as well as national and local level pooled funds. They allow you to tackle strategic issues from an angle of adaptability.

All the UN pooled funds share a general set of principles: human rights, gender equality, achieving the Sustainable Development Goals, but they can be tailored for the specific goals they want to achieve.

Further, they are more risk tolerant, which is different from other (resource) mechanisms.

Now thinking about localisation, it really depends on the strategic framework of each particular fund. It can be at the heart of some of these funds to advance this agenda, while for others it is not a strategic goal. And it really depends on the tools that are set in place to achieve localisation – for example, who participates in the decision-making processes of these mechanisms, or who or where are the communities that want to be reached with the investments of these specific funds. Localisation always faces challenges around cascade funding and the ‘intermediary’ issue that has been discussed widely. It has to be acknowledged that we have administrative rules and procedures that we must respect, for good and bad. These challenges are systemic, it’s not up to me to decide on how these funds are utilised; however, back to the tools, the Fund in Colombia is an interesting example. Through administrative agreements, designing of specific tools, we have been able to reach several, very small organisations, communities and local organisations to fulfil that Fund’s mission and agenda.

Are there disadvantages in Pooled Funding Mechanisms particularly, the Multi-Partner Trust Fund (MPTF), in the UN system at the country level? Are there some circumstances under which a pooled fund isn’t going to be a great tool – what are those?

Absolutely, I think we should have these conversations openly and in a constructive way. Please, tell us how to improve these mechanisms. I am biased of course, so if you ask me about disadvantages, I would say that well-designed pooled funds have few disadvantages but face some challenges. For example, what is the quality of resources? What is the alignment of stakeholders? At the country level, you have a wide set of stakeholders, these can be challenging to align. There are various needs for capacities at the country level to manage these funds – I’m not sure this has been discussed as thoroughly as it should be. There is no budget for the Resident Coordinator’s Office (RCO) to ensure capacity to set up and manage these mechanisms in constructive ways. Another issue is engaging specific actors in a more direct manner. I’m thinking specifically of the Malawi fund.

The Malawi fund is a UN fund. Our way to guarantee that specific organisations have a voice is to include them in the decision-making process, the governance or steering committee of the fund. Another way is to create a funding ‘window’ specifically to support civil society, but that is more challenging in Malawi than it was in Colombia for different reasons.

Are there any challenges when it comes to the potential to support civil society with regards to this funding mechanism?

Comparing Malawi and Colombia’s pooled funds, these are two totally different mechanisms. Administratively they are very similar; however, what they are designed to do is very different. The one in Colombia is for sustaining peace. It has very specific objectives in supporting national efforts to implement the peace agreement [signed between the Government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC-EP) in 2016].

Whereas the Malawi effort is SDG wide – we have been trying to find a niche and scoping the types of efforts that are being made with this fund, trying to adhere to the principle of being catalytic. In Colombia, at the moment that the fund was created, peacebuilding was ranked number one in the national agenda. Every stakeholder, certainly the international community, had a huge interest in making Colombia a success. In some ways, it was easier to get that type of flexible funding, and you had a government that was at the time leading this agenda and also aligned with this mission of supporting Colombian rural communities. This really helped us enable a funding window to be opened [to support civil society and community-based organisations]. Further, we were able to negotiate internally with the UN to reduce any potential added costs of enabling that funding window, and so donors had even more will to support it. Everything was aligned to make this opportunity to fund civil society happen.

In Malawi, it is a bit different. The challenges are aligned with something we are discussing widely here: the civic space is very different. You may be able to find a lot of local organisations, but it’s difficult to have a clear map of what they are doing; their strategic agendas are difficult to identify.

I was recently reading a report and the thematic issue was the right to food – the organisations implementing this had reached 160 local organisations, not necessarily through transferring resources but through engagement. It’s a big number!

So that’s one of the challenges. Setting up the agenda – in Malawi, the civil society community is much more dispersed and not necessarily aligned with one goal.

It sounds like in Colombia, there are organisations working towards one goal – implementing the peace accords – and many have been working on these issues for decades. How civil society is organised in Colombia and Malawi varies – in Malawi the focus is the SDGs, and that’s a huge goal and the level of organisation is not the same. How do you deal with this issue? 

Yes, absolutely, for example look at the issue of transitional justice in Colombia. It is very clear who has been working on those agendas at local and national level for a long time. I wouldn’t say it’s easy, but these organisations share similar goals, which makes a focused yet strategic engagement somehow easier. The dispersion and needs to strengthen civic space in different areas like local development, youth, and others, makes it challenging from a pooled fund perspective.

In the international community, we can have this blanket recommendation of supporting local organisations and civil society, but the nature of civil society in different contexts varies – it can be more or less cohesive, organised in ways that vary, have more or less political voice. How does this impact the way pooled funds function to support civil society?

It has a big impact. For example, the SDG Acceleration Fund in Malawi cannot give resources directly to civil society organisations.  At the beginning, this was also the case in Colombia. This is what led us to taking up this issue and negotiating internally to change this – we made agreements within the UN to negotiate low administrative rates and very reduced transactional costs, but there was a lot of political will and alignment to do this.

Here, in Malawi, it’s different. There is currently not a political push to do this and one of the challenges is civic space. UN joint programmes, for example, presents an opportunity to address this so we have started talking about the possibility of creating a joint program on civic space.

[Recently]… the Peacebuilding Commission (PBC) launched the peacebuilding dashboard – I was looking at Malawi and all the resources aligned to peacebuilding that have been invested by global mechanisms are all going to CSOs – 100%. For example, you have the Women’s Peace and Humanitarian Fund and that fund is active in Malawi. All these resources go directly to civil society and women’s organisations [in particular]. It’s a way of balancing perhaps.

I think you are suggesting that it’s important to look across these mechanisms – at all the pooled funding mechanisms in a certain context. One may struggle, but others may be directing all their resources to civil society.

Absolutely, you have to look at the overall agenda and seeing who is filling the gaps. The Malawi SDG Acceleration fund is pretty much designed for [the] UN but depending on the agenda next year when we mobilise further resources, that may change. The Peacebuilding Fund has a specific window for youth – we were very active to ensure that in Colombia the funding was aligned with our overall peacebuilding agenda, or filling gaps where we couldn’t fund issues or organisations.

You mentioned that one of the ways you fill gaps is through partnerships, particularly with other UN agencies – could you say a bit more about that?

It really depends on the agenda. Take the example of local environmental leaders in Colombia who have been systematically murdered for years. How do we support the agenda [to address this issue] from the fund in Colombia? Well, let’s try to build partnerships with those organisations which have historically been dealing with this, let’s bring on board the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and the various UN agencies that work on this and let’s discuss a call for proposals that supports this issue.

We did something similar on a totally different topic – blended finance. Aligned with peacebuilding goals, how do we enable resources for Small and Medium Enterprises? This isn’t our area of expertise, so we partnered with impact funds and with venture capitalists, and we managed to generate partnerships with very interesting outcomes.

The question is how do we generate a partnership in which we can channel resources and engage the right partner who has the technical expertise and knows the landscape?

What is the value added of UN agencies getting involved? One of the added values of various technical UN agencies is that they know the local landscape – they know which organisations are working on specific issues. Further, how do we enhance the capacities of those organisations, especially so tomorrow they can access more resources directly? Those agencies have a sense of this and we need to build those capacities.

You are in Malawi, the warm heart of Africa. From your perspective, how do the local institutions and organisations respond to or interact with these facilities?

It varies a little bit depending on the sector. In principle, our entry points for local organisations are the various UN technical agencies. They have the footprint; they have the technical knowledge, and they have the deployment on the ground – AND they are also administratively entitled to contract with them whereas the Fund is not. However, we do engage significantly in discussions and in debates in various fora. We participate with local institutions and try to understand their needs and interests and try to build partnerships. For example, agriculture is one of the most important sectors in Malawi. We have been heavily engaged in interactions with smallholder farmer organisations on the possibility to support SMEs, strengthening the private sector which is a new area of work for the UN in general, but where I think we could have an added value. We engage similarly with youth and women’s organisations.

Could you say a little bit more about the issue of why you wouldn’t be administratively entitled to contract with local organisations?  Why does this barrier exist?

This is related to how the mechanism is designed. In principle, these are UN pooled funds – the way these are structured is that the pooled funds should partner with the UN agencies that has the technical expertise. One of the tools that we use is a call for proposals, but when we launch this call, we do it jointly with the agency or entity that has the expertise in the area of interest, and we contract with that agency.

Is this true of all pooled funds? Are they all structured so that the pooled fund partners with the agency that has the expertise? And what is the value add of the fund – does it bring more resources? To put it bluntly, for example, why would agencies such as the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) or UN Women need you?

It depends on the agenda. There are pooled funds that can contract directly with local organisations. For example, the UN Peacebuilding Fund has a window to do that. It depends on each mechanism and how it is designed. Here in Malawi the SDG Acceleration fund is designed to support the Government with SDG goals. Through this mandate, you could find a niche to work with civil society organisations.  In terms of the flexibility, if we identify tomorrow that there is a need among civil society, we can do it if all the stakeholders agree.

Have any UN partners rejected money because it was too difficult, or they didn’t want to get into a conflict with local institutions?

Not really, perhaps with riskier agendas there could be the case that an agency might not be willing to support x or y theme if there is a reputational or institutional. Here in Malawi for example, we had a donor approach us, telling us they wanted to invest in a certain sector – we approached the agency that had the mandate. They found a reputational risk in doing this and so they said no and that’s fine.

If you have to venture an opinion, does the UN succeed in engaging at the humanitarian- development-peace nexus? It’s probably not a yes or no question so feel free to answer how you see fit!

Riva, that’s a philosophical question! That’s a tricky one. The triple nexus is a new agenda – the humanitarian-development nexus has been there for a while and there are good examples of how that can be advanced. The PBF is one of the UN entities that is now pushing forward this [triple nexus] agenda. I like how the PBF works because they try to think ahead – not just the triple nexus but also how this relates to environmental issues. There is good conceptualisation on the triple nexus, but we are still taking stock of how these issues are applied on the ground.

In the case of Malawi, I do believe we have fertile ground to pilot the triple nexus. Historically, Malawi has not [been] a conflict-affected country, but there are [conflict]related issues; for example, we are working with the potential spill over from the conflict in Mozambique. This provides an opportunity to test approaches to the triple nexus and how it works. I think for this, the role of joint funding and financing partnerships is critical because this is not a one agency thing.

How do we get them together to conceptualise and implement strategies that address the triple nexus? This is a role for RCOs or pooled fund managers.

What is your theory of change, what is considered developmental, humanitarian, and peacebuilding? What is conflict and how do all these things come together? This is an unfolding agenda.

In your role managing a pooled fund, could you move an issue like this forward from conceptualisation to testing programming? Could you come up with a concept note in partnership with the appropriate agency – UNDP or UNHCR – and allocate funding to try new things to address the triple nexus?

If the main goal is testing the triple nexus in a general sense, I think there wouldn’t be any appetite for that. The main goal would really be to understand how this plays out at the country level.  In these specific contexts, like the Mozambique spill over, there are all three of these challenges, humanitarian, development and peacebuilding. How are we conceptualising and then addressing these challenges with the participation of the relevant actors that work on these issues in Malawi with the participation of communities, of local organisations who know the most about these issues? I think that’s the right path. We can’t work on these in the abstract, we need to tie them to specific situations that are relevant to our work, to the issues we face on a daily basis.

At the global level the international community has articulated a generally-agreed-upon set of principles with regards to funding local organisations – for example, provide as much flexibility in funding and program design as possible. If you have to think about what your local colleagues would say about it, can you paraphrase some of those ideas?

I wouldn’t presume to speculate. It’s a question for them, but I have a few ideas. But from my perspective, we’ve had this discussion in the past on these principles and there are key elements there. One of them is national ownership and back to the pooled funding mechanisms, I think this is really at the heart of these mechanisms – how do you guarantee national ownership but not limited to state entities? How do we align this ownership with the aspirations of local organisations? How do we guarantee ownership by civil society? The fund in Colombia is a great example of this work.

My self-criticism is that the UN tends to focus heavily on government and state institutions; this is the heart of the UN but how do we integrate these with other stakeholders and institutions?

As I mentioned, the example of social leaders and human rights defenders in Colombia…even though the fund in Colombia is designed to support the state and the implementation of the peace agreement, we found a way to include these stakeholders in the design of calls for proposals. Does this proposal work for you? Is this structured in a way that makes sense to communities? To civil society? We found a way to take away the arrogance that we sometimes have being behind a computer and writing documents with our own ideas – instead, we went out and asked, you tell us, how do we do this? How do we best address this issue?

With regard to flexibility, I think the main question is, how do we address some of the systemic challenges facing actors at the local level to accessing resources? How do we design tools – can we think of new tools that don’t necessarily create new bureaucracy to allow civil society to access these resources?  I think we are capable! I think the support of external actors, such as the Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation, is essential for that. It’s good that you all get us thinking about how to do this. It is aligned with how to engage participatory funding approaches. How to sit at the same table with different sectors and institutions – with civil society, the private sector, the UN with all of its diversity…this is already very challenging.

Right, the fundamental way the UN is structured – which is also true of bilateral institutions – is around state engagement.  But what I hear you say is that you are pushing those boundaries, and this was one of the great successes of the fund in Colombia?

Absolutely, this is an evolution [and we need external partners to also push us] – the question is how to build real authentic partnerships, how to build trust among stakeholders – even within the UN it’s a challenge, there are a lot of stakeholders just within the UN system.

If you must tell the world the most important thing about this UN SDG fund, what would it be?

If I had to say one thing it’s about how we are trying to change the game a little bit. Historically, the development sector in Malawi has had a lot of donor-driven behaviour and we are trying to change this dynamic. We are trying to make changes to how the flow of funds have worked historically in these communities, trying to change the engagement across sectors – with SMEs [small, medium and micro enterprises], with the private sector – and within the UN. How do we get the UN system to work together, focusing not necessarily on the monetary resources but on the human resources and the technical capacity to come up with creative ideas and solutions to systemic problems in this country?  These are the things we are trying to push for.

Do you feel that you have more legitimacy in your job coming from a Global South country?

That’s an interesting question – I don’t know! I say this all the time in informal conversations – I think there should be more Africans working in Latin America and more Latin Americans working in Africa because we have shared similar challenges historically. We understand each other in a different way. How the system works – and I’m not going to change it – is that more people from donor countries are working in Latin America and in Africa.

I think South-South cooperation is interesting but hasn’t reached its potential, probably because of the flow of funding. I don’t think my peers perceive that I have more or less legitimacy coming from one place or another. Legitimacy comes from the quality of your ideas and how you engage with your partners.

Santiago Quiñones has over 13 years’ experience in the United Nations, working in Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean in emergency, transition and development contexts at various Agencies and Resident Coordinators’ Offices. His areas of engagement covered governance, human development, youth, food security, conflict prevention and peacebuilding issues. Quiñones’ most recent assignments are in the field of pooled funds and included leading the implementation of the UN Trust Fund for Sustaining Peace in Colombia until 2019 followed by the current placement leading the UN Malawi SDG Acceleration Fund.

Riva Kantowitz By Riva Kantowitz
Riva Kantowitz is a Senior Advisor at the Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation where she focuses on financing, human rights and peacebuilding. She is the Founder of Radical Flexibility Fund, a budding not-for-profit on a mission to create more impactful, sustainable pathways for donors to invest in local peacebuilding, development and social change initiatives. Kantowitz has worked with human rights, as well as humanitarian and peacebuilding organisations around the world for more than 20 years. Her current focus is on effective support to grassroots social change initiatives via partnerships and innovative funding approaches.
José Alvarado By José Alvarado

José Alvarado is a Programme Officer for peacebuilding and sustaining peace at the Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation where he is coordinating a series of roundtable discussions on the UN’s Sustaining Peace Resolutions. Other tasks include organising sessions at various international forums such as the Stockholm Forum on Peace and Development. Alvarado’s broader experience includes working at several research institutions and publishing on gender and peace processes, arms transfer controls as well as climate change and peace. He is a Rotary Peace Fellow with a master’s degree in Peace and Conflict Studies from Uppsala University. Before moving to Sweden, Alvarado worked for the United States government in Guatemala and on social issues in the non-governmental sector in Mexico, Central America, and Colombia.


Simone Hagfeldt By Simone Hagfeldt

Simone Hagfeldt is Editor and Publications Manager at the Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation with over 25 years’ experience in communications, development and environment as well as research and editorial work in the government, non-government and academic sectors. She is a natural facilitator who previously worked as an activist on various political and social issues, consultant, in academic administration, with developing training-of-trainer materials and served on ministerial advisory panels on water. Hagfeldt is passionate about grassroots engagement in social, environmental and development initiatives. She holds a masters’ degree in Integrated Water Resources Management and is a LEAD Fellow.